Chichen Itza

Chichen Itza Travel Blog

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Clapping at the pyramid
After leaving our starting city of Cancun the first stop on my tour from Mexico to Costa Rica was the infamous Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza.

We got a very nice bus direct from Cancun to Chichen Itza where we were dropped off in the car park outside. We waited in the entrance area as Todd got our entrance tickets and found our local guide to show us around the complex.

There was a short walk from the entrance through some trees and then we come out into the opening of the ruins, facing directly at the main iconic Chichen Itza pyramid about 200 metres away. It was bigger than I expected and dominated the area.

We took some photos of the pyramid from where we were but after that we went around to the left with our guide to the ball court area. The guide sat us down and gave us a rundown of the Mayans and how Chichen Itza was so late in the Mayan culture that they had merged with another civilisation and so really were the Itzas by that point.

The view we were looking at from there was the ball court where notoriously the captain of the winning team lost his head at the end of every game. The details are very hard to pin down because it is entirely based on interpreting the drawings etched on to the walls of the ruins, so they are more loose interpretations than anything. This guide certainly believed that it was the winning captain and not the losing who was killed. The explanation was that it was considered a great honour because they believed the blood spurting from the neck was a nurturing gift to the ground to help with the upcoming harvests.

The ball court was a large rectangular grassy area with two long flat walls on opposing sides. Up very high are stone rings at right angle to the playing surface. The theory is that the game was over at the first score. This could still have taken hours as the hole is very small and very high. On top of ones of the walls was a presentation area where the sacrifices would take place in full view of the hordes of spectators. As I walked around the court I had to keep reminding myself that I was actually where those events had actually taken place - too many times I could read about these things and imagine I was there but really just be watching a documentary or just looking at Wikipedia. A fascinating feature about the construction of the area was that at the two ends that didn't have walls there were elevated structures that local and visiting chiefs would sit at, and they were acoustically designed so that while a game was going on they could talk to the opposing structure at barely above normal voice level and still hear each other despite the commotion and the considerable distance between the two. We weren't allowed to go up them to try it out unfortunately.

After the ball court we moved around to what is best described as a cemetery. It is a low walled off area where they would scatter the ashes of the dead, as opposed to burying full bodies that take up a lot of room. The eye-opening feature of the cemetery was that the walls all around it had side-facing skulls carved into them in basically the same pattern. I expect it would have been a powerful image for those back in the Mayan times.

The guide showed us a couple of other things and then just before going up to the main pyramid he gave us an overview of it by drawing a top-down sketch of it in the dirt. It was very well-thought out, and showed how the pyramid was perfectly aligned to meet the equinox by casting a huge shadow of a snake. The number of steps on the pyramid is the number of days in the year, and there were various other numerical significances. The Mayan astronomers knew a lot!

We had seen groups clapping in front of the pyramid earlier but didn't really understand why. When we were done with the sketch overview we were up to the same point and the guide started clapping. The sound echoed off the pyramid in a really bizarre way - it was like a loud twang that was very unnatural sounding. For the people in Mayan times this would have been only the sound a god could make. If the pyramid was designed to make that sound then it took some considerable understanding of acoustics by its designers to come up with that. It is also possible it was an accident that they took advantage of after the fact.

If we had come to Chichen Itza only a few years earlier we could have climbed up the pyramid and seen the complex from the top, but even though the steps are not that steep compared to say Angkor Wat we were told that someone had fallen to their death and so they decided to shut it off for visitors. It seemed like a bit of an over-reaction to me but then maybe there were also conservation reasons as well.

Next up the guide took us a bit out of the way to one of the big cenotes of the Chichen Itza ruins. Cenotes are large underground pools that form out of the soft limestone that is typical in the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico. This cenote was round and its roof had entirely caved in so you could see straight into it. The guide told us that the water was not used for drinking but instead was considered a portal to the underworld and so they would throw dead bodies in along with offerings.

We stopped for a short break before making our way back to the main plaza area where we had a look at a big building at the back which I have since forgotten its importance. It originally had an area at the front made with stone pillars and wooden roofs, but obviously over time the roof disintegrated, and also the pillars came down and so were discovered by Europeans in piles. Archaeologists went through a lot of effort to work out which stone went where in order to restore the pillars to their original places.

The guide then took us along a path through some trees, which was dotted with locals aggressively hawking mostly generic crap, to the observatory on the other side. The observatory actually looks like a huge dome telescope, but obviously they didn't have telescopes. The building was used to make astronomical observations in order to both gather facts like dates and also to get guidance from the gods above about what they should or shouldn't be doing. One fascinating theory that the guide promoted was that the astronomers were banned from ever looking into the night sky, at the penalty of losing their eyes if I remember correctly, and so they would use huge still pools of water to look in the reflections to make their observations. Tedious!

This was where our guided tour ended so after he went off we were left to wander around as we pleased. There were still a lot of ruins that we hadn't covered, but they just weren't as significant as the others we had gone through. I wandered around mostly on my own for about half an hour but without unique explanations about each ruin from someone I got a bit ruin-weary and went back to get some lunch at the entrance area. Eventually everyone else made it back and we went out to the car park and after a bit of sitting around waiting we got another of the very nice buses onwards to city of Merida.
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Clapping at the pyramid
Chichen Itza
photo by: ellechic